By Frank Sabatini Jr.
More than a century ago it was the building that triggered a commerce shift from Old Town to Downtown, which back then was called “new town.” With ornate 16-foot ceilings and brick arches, the Commercial Bank of San Diego opened on Fifth Avenue in what is now Florent Restaurant & Lounge, named appropriately after the structure’s Florentine-style façade.
Built in 1874, two additional floors were added to accommodate the city library. Yet by the turn of the century, the city purchased the building and moved in the mayor and council chambers, along with the police department. For 35 years, it operated as City Hall.
Florent occupies the first floor and basement, and blurs the line between a restaurant and nightclub, much like its previous tenant (Jimmy Love’s) did for nearly 20 years. An enormous flat screen looms over the rear area of the street-level dining room, which is cleared for dancing around 10 p.m.
Downstairs is a cozy, stylish lounge catering to Gaslamp night crawlers on Saturday evenings (and Fridays starting in late June).
The lunch scene, however, is calming in the absence of DJs and live music on most nights, allowing you to better observe a few architectural vestiges from yesteryear such as iron columns, large brick-framed windows, and mortar protruding from brick ceilings in the basement restrooms. It used to be a jail down there and it feels eerily as such.
There is also a cage elevator, but that’s out of sight in the kitchen, where Chef Brad Hightow applies upbeat twists to classic American dishes for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.
Hightow’s no-filler crab cake is testimony to his Maryland roots and a carryover from his previous reign at the nearby University Club. Set atop a smear of tartar sauce strewn with corn, it stood marvelously with the mere support of Old Bay Seasoning and lemon emanating from beneath its thin panko crust. Rightfully so, it won the people’s choice award at last year’s San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival.
The mother of all jalapeno poppers are served in pairs and bedded on corn tortillas. The peppers are stuffed with smoked chicken, wrapped tightly in bacon, and topped with cotija cheese and pico de gallo.
“Oh my god, it’s delicious,” said my companion, who got the hotter of the two and tried cooling his palate with a cold-brew coffee cocktail spiked mightily with Amaro liqueur and sweet vermouth. Mine wasn’t spicy, but it was still ridiculously lip smacking to the point in which I would have ordered a couple more rounds as my main entrée had I not been visiting for a review.
Our third appetizer was roasted Brussels sprouts mixed with lean, Portuguese chorizo and tossed in glistening Asian chili sauce. Served generously, if these are the last Brussels sprouts I ever eat after getting a five-year fill on them, then I’m glad to have ended on this brighter note.
Hightow, a graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, brings some trusted sandwiches to the menu. We skipped over his tempting gravy-smothered poutine burger and another topped with habanero barbecue sauce in lieu of the Florent dip, Reuben, and crispy chicken sandwiches.
The former had me practically rolling on the floor, which isn’t how I normally react to a roast beef sandwich. But when cilantro-lime aioli and roasted jalapenos are applied, it transcends the Plain Jane ilk even without plunging every bite into the accompanying jus.
My companion’s favorite was the crispy chicken on brioche, which featured a twin stacking of buttermilk-battered breast filets crowned with apple slaw, pepper jack cheese and Sriracha aioli – a superlative construct that duly competed with the Reuben.
For that, Hightow takes a near-classic approach, using fluffy sauerkraut and creamy house-made Russian dressing. Although he braises the corned beef for several hours in brown sugar and crowns it with Gruyere cheese instead of Swiss, resulting in one of the loveliest Reubens outside of Milton’s in Del Mar. The tender meat reappears on the brunch menu in the form of hash.
Other sandwiches such as herb-roasted turkey, seared ahi, and roasted tomato-artichoke comprise most of the lunch menu. Dinnertime signals entrees such as zucchini Florentine, stout-braised short ribs, and grilled rib eye.
For dessert we wondered if the foie gras bread pudding would taste savory and convoluted. To our relief, it didn’t. Because there are no chunks or bits of the goose liver residing in the scheme, the sweetness was retained. Hightow uses only the fat from the foie gras as the butter component to grill the brioche, which is further moistened from Chantilly cream on top and a slathering of strawberry jam that pops with black pepper. A worthwhile, midday dessert it was.
Housed in a building that once served as the hub for San Diego politics and law enforcement, Florent represents a diametrically different world, appealing to Downtown denizens purely through dining and entertainment.
Deals and events occur daily. They include half-price cocktails on Monday evenings; live “island” music and discounted punchbowls on Tuesday nights; DJ sets and VIP bottle service Thursday through Saturday, and more. For a complete lineup, visit florentsd.com.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com